Discover ‘Reel’ Food At Dorset’s Film and Food Festival

How many films with food connections can you list? There’s ‘Chocolat’, ‘Eat Pray Love’ and ‘Ratatouille’. If you can think of more, you could help with the easiest part of arranging the Screenbites Festival. As well as film screenings, it’s a showcase for local food and drink producers.

“The idea is to hold events around Dorset, in village halls, and to introduce people to local food businesses like artisan bakers and cheesemakers,” said organiser Susanne Harding. Screenbites is in its fourteenth year and Susanne was a fan who fell in love with the food and film festival and ended up taking on the reins. “The first time I found Screenbites I was amazed by it. I went to every single one, bar one. There must have been ten or so,” explained Susanne.

Susanne Harding

“The last one was held at the newly opened Sturminster Exchange. Halfway through the proceedings, I was awarded with the ‘Screenbiter Of The Year’ award, as the person that had come to the most evenings. It was terribly embarrassing,” Susanne laughed. “I’ve been hooked ever since and I liked it so much, I’m now running it.”

Journalists and authors Fanny Charles and Gaye Pirrie-Wier originally founded Screenbites along with Caroline Tory. Susanne has fond memories of Caroline’s flamboyant food sales approach. “She used to come out in the intervals with a huge top hat on and sell Purbeck ice creams,” Susanne recalled.

When I called in on Susanne’s Ashmore cottage, she was busy making last minute preparations for the event. Her kitchen table was piled high with papers, posters and post-it notes. It was 3pm and her lunch, a half-nibbled plate of crackers, lay next to an open laptop displaying event listings on the Screenbites website.

As we spoke, Susanne multitasked, writing out and attaching an address label to a parcel. Next, she dotted her hand with a black magic marker, to remind her to drive to Ludwell to get that package in the mail before 5pm. She glanced at her watched and led me into her garden, for a well-earned five-minute break. Organising Screenbites has been non-stop.

“I started thinking about it in January. For the last two or three months it’s been all I have thought about.” Susanne has a couple of additional helpers, but says she is responsible for “the main, day-to-day running, phoning and sorting.” And she has to chose and book venues, ranging from village halls to unique and sometimes quirkier spaces. “A couple of weeks ago we went to Gold Hill Organic Farm in Child Okeford and we showed a film in the barn,” she said.

Putting on the festival requires an interesting mix of skills and abilities, too. Susanne is a designer by profession, but she also has to gain film critic skills, act as an event organiser and a semi-professional foodie. That brings an additional challenge for Susanne, as she is vegan and follows a gluten-free diet. “There’s me introducing people to cheeses, meats and bread, but I don’t eat much of what I am promoting,” Susanne said. “I admire these people who have set up these food businesses and as much as I shouldn’t eat it, it’s all delicious.”

So how do the events work? “You arrive at 7pm and all of the local food producers are there,” explained Susanne. “You can get a cup of tea or go to the bar for local beer, ciders or wines. Then, after an hour, we watch the movie.”

The local produce that is presented at Screenbites is for sampling and allows filmgoers to do some shopping. It’s not a pre-movie supper, as such. “I was always very naughty,” Susanne revealed. “I used to arrive for the evening event at 7pm, and I had not had supper. I would munch my way around all of the tastings, starting with the savouries and finishing with the sweets and chocolates. That would do me for the evening. The idea is not to do that but to taste the wares, then take them home for presents or to stock the larder.”

Susanne is passionate about the role that Screenbites has in showcasing small, local producers. She understands both the pressures and opportunities facing self-employed or sole traders in rural Dorset. “Having worked on my own as a very small business since I left college, I know what it is like when you are setting up. It is a very rewarding thing but it can be soul destroying and lonely. By supporting local food people, the money is not disappearing out of the area. As soon as you go and shop at a supermarket, your local, hard-earned cash is sent who knows where?” Susanne said.

Susanne would still like to hear from any local producers who would like to attend. “We have a few spaces for this year,” said Susanne. She’s keen to hear from anyone who would like to sell low food mile, local food. “Anything from chocolate and cheeses to vegetables, chutney or honey.”

So that’s the foodies catered for. What about the films? “The movie has something to do with food. It could be a tentative link or immersed in food. ‘Babette’s Feast’ is like that,” Susanne said.

Susanne explained how she picks the films that she screens in each venue. “The first thing I had to do was view the films. So the whole of the winter I was watching two movies each evening and deciding whether they were suitable, whether they were too raunchy, whether they had enough food, or whether they were unsuitable for the Dorset public. I also had to decide which neighbourhood would prefer which film. Would they rather have a black and white classic or a foreign film? We have a wide variety of films from Paddington 2 to the 1937 black and white classic, ‘Dinner At The Ritz’ with David Niven.”

So what audience does Susanne have in mind when she selects the movies? “The audience tends to be retired people, because they have the time in the evenings and they don’t have to put children to bed. Looking back at past Screenbites there have been people of all ages who have come. Paddington 2 is great fun for an adult audience as well as children.”

Susanne is doing something completely different in her home village of Ashmore on Wednesday, 3rdOctober. There’s no feature film but there will be a special performance. “We have invited Ian Bloomfield who calls himself ‘The Galloping Maestro’. He’s going to talk about the history of opera and make a huge paella. He is an accomplished chef and a very good opera singer. Ian has been to Ashmore before and we’re very fond of him in the village. After his demonstration on how to make a traditional paella, we get to eat it! The second act will be lots of arias and some special surprises. There will be some film clips running but there won’t be a main movie,” she said.

That evening event on Wednesday runs from 7pm to 10pm at Ashmore Village Hall. Tickets can be booked and bought on screenbites.co.uk, priced £20. The price seemed reasonable. Susanne told me that she had put money – thousands of pounds – into the festival. She says she’s supporting her passion, rather than developing a business opportunity.

“There’s no money to be made in it, unfortunately. It’s just for the good of the community,” she said. Hopefully Screenbites will break even but its future seems to be in our hands, as potential attendees. I asked Susanne whether there would be another festival next year. “That depends on how many people turn up this year,” Susanne responded. “I have put a certain amount of money into the event and it would be nice if was returned.”

She says that if she has enough audience and food producers to support the event, then she would love to continue Screenbites in 2019. “If it is enjoyed, as it has been in the past, then I am happy to do it again,” she said. Let’s hope that, like Susanne, when newcomers get a taste for the film and food festival, they’ll be bitten by the Screenbites bug.